When I think about the word shame, I picture a little girl with her hand caught in the cookie jar or a teenager who got caught shoplifting. My brain conjures up images of getting caught, but in her book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, Patricia DeYoung offers a different picture of shame. She writes that shame is “an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other.” What does that mean? It means that chronic shame is not so much that instance of being caught as much as it is a product of not feeling seen and understood by someone who you need to feel understood by. I just finished the fabulous Netflix movie, The Prom, which (with lots of showtunes) portrays what it feels like for gay youth to not feel seen by their parents. For many gay youth, this feeling of not getting to be who they fully are can create a sort of internal splintering. This splintering can lead to shame about not just what you do like stealing a cookie, but who you are at the core.
Shame, of course, is not exclusive to gay youth. It can come up for adults who always were praised for their accomplishments, the winning touchdown or the honor roll, but never felt loved for their very existence. This striving for “gold stars” or points on the board connects to the other book I have been reading, Stressed in the US, 12 Tools to Tackle Anxiety, Loneliness, Tech-Addiction and More by Dr. Meg Van Deusen. In talking to Dr. Van Deusen on The Family Brain (Episode 94), we talk about how the culture of striving in the US and all our quick technology solutions have put many of us on a hamster wheel that has us exhausted. It got me thinking about how much shame fuels our striving.
Many of the clients I see in my private practice seem to struggle with striving fatigue. The next achievement is never enough to satisfy. The launch of a new year can bring the call for more striving, but, for a moment, pause and consider how shame and striving mix in your life and how you can cultivate some rest for your body, mind, and soul.